One-game playoffs have been epics

One-game playoffs have been epics

The one-game playoff for last year's National League Wild Card berth ended when Colorado's Matt Holliday scored, sliding through San Diego catcher Michael Barrett on Jamie Carroll's sacrifice fly to short right field and just beating a rainbow throw by Brian Giles. Barrett couldn't control the ball and by the time he reached out to tag Holliday, plate umpire Tim McClelland had called him safe.

The question will forever linger whether Holliday actually touched the plate. Even Holliday, who scraped his chin and was spiked by Barrett on the left hand, isn't sure.

"I think so," said Holliday, who scored the run that won the game, 9-8, in the bottom of the 13th inning this past Oct. 1 at Coors Field, sending the Rockies into the playoffs and the Padres home. "I mean, the umpire called me safe so I must have touched the plate."

They are a rarity, but when they occur, these winner-take-all, one-gamers have a possibility of becoming epics. Including last year, there have been only seven one-game tiebreakers in Major League history to decide pennants, division titles or Wild Card berths.

Back when the top team in each league went directly to the World Series, the NL used a three-game format if two teams in that league were tied for first place at the end of regulation. There were four of those, the first in 1946, the last in 1962, and including 1951, when the Giants' Bobby Thomson hit "The Shot Heard 'Round the World" against Brooklyn's Ralph Branca in the third and decisive game.

The AL always used a one-game tie-breaker and there was only one, in 1948, before the League Championship Series was adopted in 1969.

Since then, if a tiebreaker had been needed, it's been a uniform one game for both leagues. There have been only six since 1969, the first three to determine division titles and the past three to determine Wild Card winners.

These extra-curricular affairs, which count as regular-season games, have produced some of baseball's most memorable moments: Bucky Dent's homer at Fenway Park in 1978, giving the Yanks the AL East title and sending Red Sox fans on to another generation of heartache, and last year's first-of-the-21st-century battle in the Rockies that see-sawed all night until Colorado won.

"If that had been a Yankees-Red Sox game, it would be considered one of the greatest of all time," said Ted Leitner, a long-time Padres announcer.

But there have been some duds along the way, too: Blowouts by the Astros over the Dodgers (1980), the Mariners over the Angels (1995) and the Mets over the Reds (1999).

And there have been some anomalies.

From 1946-80, the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers were involved in the first five of the eight playoffs involving NL teams -- two of them heartbreak losses to the rival Giants in 1951 and 1962. In the AL, the Red Sox took part in the first two one-gamers in 1948 and 1978, also losing in 1948 to the Indians at Fenway Park.

There have only been three such playoffs for postseason berths in the AL and eight in the NL.

Since 1994, when the leagues split into three divisions each, the Wild Card berths were adopted and Division Series were added to the postseason mix, it has been much more difficult to tie for a division title.

By rule, if two teams tie for the division title on the final day of the season and the Wild Card winner doesn't come from another division, there is no playoff. Tie-breaker rules are used with the head-to-head record between the two teams during the regular season as the primary consideration.

This has already happened three times.

In 2001, the Astros and Cardinals tied for first in the NL Central with records of 93-69. The Astros won the division and the Cards won the Wild Card. In 2005, the Yankees and Red Sox each finished 95-67 in the AL East. The Yankees, having posted the better head-to-head record, won the title, the Red Sox the Wild Card. And in 2006, the Padres and Dodgers finished tied with records of 88-74 in the National League West. The Padres won the West and the Dodgers the Wild Card.

There was one departure, though, under the most recent playoff format: In 1995, the Mariners, after a spirited September comeback, found themselves tied with the Angels at 78-66 atop the AL West in a season shortened at the outset by a players' strike that also knocked out the end of the 1994 season and playoffs. The Yankees, at 79-65, won the Wild Card. Thus, the Angels and Mariners had to play a one-game playoff for the division title.

Here are capsules of the six one-game playoffs since MLB expanded its playoff format in 1969:

Oct. 1, 2007, Rockies 9, Padres 8, 13 innings
The Padres lost on the final day of the regular season and the Rockies won to finish at 89-73, forcing the one-game Wild Card playoff game at Coors Field. The Rockies held the lead twice during regulation, only to see the Padres come back to tie. In the top of the 13th, Scott Hairston hit a two-run homer off Jorge Julio and San Diego took an 8-6 lead, its first of the game. In came all-time career saves leader Trevor Hoffman, who imploded. The first three batters belted two doubles and a triple, tying the score. Holliday stood on third 90 feet away with a chance to win the game. He didn't disappoint.

Oct. 4, 1999, Mets 5, Reds 0
Both teams won on the final day of the regular season to finish at 96-66, setting up a Wild Card playoff game at old Cinergy Field (Riverfront Stadium) in Cincinnati. It wasn't much of a battle. The Mets scored twice in the top of the first on Edgardo Alfonzo's two-run homer and never looked back. By the sixth inning they led, 5-0, with Al Leiter on his way to a two-hit shutout. Pokey Reese and Jeffrey Hammonds had the only hits, both singles. Steve Parris started for the Reds, didn't make it out of the third inning and took the loss.

Sept. 28, 1998, Cubs 5, Giants 3
Both teams lost on the final day of season to finish at 89-73, setting up the Wild Card playoff game at Wrigley Field. The Cubs built a 4-0 lead off Giants starter Mark Gardner. And when they scored a single run in the eighth to make it 5-0, their first postseason berth since 1989 seemed secure. But wait. These are the Cubs. This is the curse. In the ninth, the Giants started picking away, scoring a run and setting up a bases-loaded, no-out situation for Barry Bonds. With the crowd standing and in clear angst, Bonds lined a sacrifice fly to center, scoring the second run against left-hander Terry Mulholland. Rod Beck came in to get the final two outs: a Jeff Kent run-producing grounder and a Joe Carter pop fly to end the game. It was his 51st save of the season.

Oct. 2, 1995, Mariners 9, Angels 1
The Angels had an 11-game lead in the AL West as late as Aug. 9. By Sept. 20, the Mariners had caught them, but the Halos won six of their final seven games, including the finale at Oakland, to keep the two knotted on the final day of the season. Meanwhile, the Mariners lost three of their last five, including their finale at Texas, to set up the one-game playoff for the division title at the old Kingdome in Seattle. The first six innings matched left-handers Mark Langston of the Angels and Randy Johnson of the Mariners in a pitching duel. With the Mariners leading 1-0 heading into the seventh, the game got out of hand as they scored four times each in the seventh and eighth to win the first playoff berth in franchise history.

Oct. 6, 1980, Astros 7, Dodgers 1
The game at Dodger Stadium wasn't much, but the last weekend of the season certainly was. The Dodgers trailed the Astros by three games in the NL West with three games at Dodger Stadium between the two teams. The Dodgers had to win out and they did, swiping three one-run games in front of frenzied sellout crowds that Steve Garvey dubbed "the 10th man," setting up the one-game playoff as the teams finished at 92-70. Manager Tommy Lasorda had the option of using a 19-year-old left-hander named Fernando Valenzuela in the playoff game, but he chose the more experienced Dave Goltz. Bad choice. The Astros jumped all over Goltz, knocking him out after three innings. Meanwhile, Joe Niekro tossed a complete-game six-hitter for his 20th win of the season, giving the Astros their first postseason berth in franchise history.

Oct. 2, 1978, Yankees 5, Red Sox 4
It had been another year of turmoil in the Bronx. Manager Billy Martin was fired, replaced by Bob Lemon, and rehired effective for the 1980 season five days later. On July 16, the Yanks trailed the Red Sox by a full 13 games in the AL East. Under the calm hand of "Lem," they caught them on Sept 10 after the famous four-game sweep at Fenway forever known as the "Boston Massacre." It was then nip and tuck, with the Yanks holding a one-game lead from Sept. 13 until the final day of the season, when they lost and the Red Sox won, setting up the one-game division title playoff game between the two 99-63 teams at the Fens. The game was as good as the regular season.

The Sox took a 2-0 lead into the seventh off Yanks ace Ron Guidry when the tables turned. Dent took former teammate Mike Torrez just enough into the netting above the Green Monster for a three-run homer that gave the Yanks a 3-2 lead. Thurman Munson added an RBI double in the inning. And when Reggie Jackson homered to dead center in the eighth, the Yankees' 5-2 lead looked pretty complete. But it wasn't. Rich "Goose" Gossage bailed out Guidry in the bottom of the seventh. He pitched out of that jam, pitched out of his own self-generated jam as the Sox came back with a pair in the eighth, and induced Carl Yastrzemski to pop out in the ninth with runners on the corners to end one of the most thrilling games and races in baseball history.

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.